24 Hours in Cairo
Getting to know “The Mother of the World.”
Egypt is affectionately known as Umm al-Dunyain Arabic, meaning “Mother of the World.” And while modern Cairo is comparatively new, founded in 969 A.D. by the Fatimid General Jawhar, the treasures in the Egyptian Museum and the pyramids in neighboring Giza go back to if not the dawn of time, then at least very early in the morning.
Hectic, crowded and polluted, you will love Cairo or you will hate it; it’s difficult to find those ambivalent toward Egypt’s capital. But a full day of off-the-beaten-path sightseeing will acquaint you with Cairo, leaving you able to draw your own conclusions about Africa’s largest city.
At sunrise, the outline of mosques rise through the haze in the city of a thousand minarets. Start the day with ful medames (stewed fava beans) and tamiyya (fried chickpea patties) for breakfast at the ① Mena House Hotel. Built in 1869 as a hunting lodge for Khedive Ismail Pasha, a 19th-century Ottoman ruler of Egypt, the hotel has hosted the likes of Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Verdant and relaxing with fountains and swimming pools, the site offers a respite from the insanity of the pyramid area at Giza nearby.
Take a taxi or Careem (the Egyptian version of Uber) to ② Sultan Hassan Mosque before the heat hits. Completed in 1359, the mosque is one of the world’s largest, and is more impressive, older, and stylistically more Egyptian than the better-known Muhammad Ali Mosque, which can be seen looming above Sultan Hassan. Next door is the Al-Rifa’i mosque, which is equally breathtaking and contains the tombs of Ismail Pasha, King Farouk, and the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
As peckishness sets in, head to ③ Felfela, an Egyptian institution. A ful sandwich, which tastes something like a bean burrito in pita bread, comes to just US$0.14. Beef or chicken shawarma drizzled with tahini and wrapped in thin and chewy taboon bread is just a bit more expensive at $1.05. If your visit happens to fall during the month of Ramadan, Felfela is one of the few non-hotel restaurants open during the day. Though the restaurant boasts a number of locations across the city, their downtown location is on Talaat Harb Street, not far from the Egyptian Museum.
Walk off lunch in ④ Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of Cairenes converged in 2011 to protest the ruling regime, which resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. At the center is a statue of national hero Omar Makram, who fought against Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, and not far off the square is a mosque named in his honor.
On the way to Islamic Cairo, stop for a cold glass of karkadeh (hibiscus juice) at ⑤ The Windsor Hotel’s Barrel Bar, decorated with taxidermy animal horns and tchotchkes that recall the hotel’s past as both a British officers’ club during World War I and its ownership over half a century ago by a Swiss hotelier. The hotel is a dusty relic of a Cairo which is no more. As the genial, witty and hospitable general manager Wafiq Doss puts it, “The Windsor may not be good, but it’s historic.” (This author happens to think The Windsor is quite good.) It features the oldest elevator in the country, built by the Swiss company Schindler. Hop in for a ride and check out one of the rooms, appointed with period furniture and offering a whiff of bygone years.
⑥ Al-Muezz Street in Islamic Cairo is a kilometer-long pedestrian walkway that boasts the largest concentration of Mamluke architecture in the city. Shops selling traditional medicines, jewelry and textiles are scattered between dozens of medieval mausoleums, mosques and madrassas (schools). The almost hypnotic ablaq technique, alternating white blocks of marble with red, brown and black ones, is seen everywhere you turn. Ornate curves and fleur-de-lis style ornamentations adorn doorways, and the arabesque patterning and stalactite work on the ceilings of mihrabs recall Spain’s Alhambra. The mosques’ peaceful inner courtyards provide a welcome break from the street vendors, buskers and general hullaballoo outside.
Not far from the southern tip of Al-Muezz Street is the elevated ⑦ Al-Azhar Park, where Egyptians gather to picnic and take in the views of the city. Play your cards right, and you just might be invited to join a family for tea and snacks.
Settle in for an early dinner at ⑧ El-Kebabgy, a Sofitel Hotel restaurant on the southern tip of Gezira Island. Opt, if you can, for a seat on the balcony, overlooking the Nile as the sun sets. Baladi, Egyptian flatbread, is baked fresh in clay ovens near the entrance and delivered piping hot throughout the meal. The mixed grill — featuring a smorgasbord of chicken, beef and lamb, both minced and as chops, served on a miniature charcoal grill — is enough meat to satisfy the Egyptian Army.
While on the alcohol front Egypt is somewhat liberal by Middle Eastern standards, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to walk down the street and stumble upon a bar. That said, most hotels in the city have watering holes, and given the ideal location of the Mena House, sitting in the lobby bar with a Stella (the Egyptian national brand, completely unassociated with Stella Artois), with the Great Pyramid of Giza just outside the window as the sun goes down, is not a bad way to end the day. Plus, an early night in bed means an early morning the next day, with ample time to explore the rest of what Cairo has to offer.